The Department of Education kicked off its series of negotiations to develop regulations related to a variety of higher education policies on Tuesday morning. One of the first items taken up by the committee tasked with these negotiations was a unanimous vote to add Amanda Martinez, UnidosUS Senior Education Policy Analyst, as a civil rights representative to the table. At the same time, it rejected a proposal to add another representative of for-profit higher education institutions.
The move comes just as the Department of Education is considering a series of institutional accountability policies that affect equal access to education. One of the biggest is whether to reinstate Obama-era policies requiring for-profit higher education institutions to show their graduates can successfully pay back their loans through gainful employment. The rule was rescinded during the Trump Aadministration by then Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, leaving many civil rights groups and policymakers concerned that for-profit institutions recruit large numbers of low-income students and students of color without affording them the gainful employment protections required of other institutions of higher education.
“It’s my hope that the regulations developed here will move us closer to clear policies that protect students and taxpayers,” U.S. Undersecretary of Education James Kvaal said during opening remarks before the rulemaking committee.
Last week the education policy think tank Third Way invited Martinez and other higher education policy experts from New America, the Institute for College Access & Success, and the Center for American Progress in an online press conference to discuss accountability in the higher education sector.
Kyle Southern, director of accountability at the Institute for College Access & Success, noted that 350,000 students graduated from some of the worst performing programs with nearly $7.5 billion in student debt that they are unlikely to be able to repay.
“This administration has an opportunity to again meet the requirements of the law and implement a gainful employment rule that protects students from predatory, high-cost, low-quality programs and taxpayer investments from waste, fraud, and abuse of federal financial aid programs,” he said.
“We know the for-profit industry in particular has fought gainful employment every step of the way over the last decade. But it will be interesting to see how other various factions align on this,” added New America’s Director of Higher Education, Amy Laitinen.
Martinez cited a recent Student Borrower Protection Center report that showed that there were more than twice as many for-profit higher-education institutions in ZIP codes with majority-Latino populations. Given that many Latino students are low-income, and often work and care for family while attending school, this makes them particularly vulnerable to predatory lending practices, she explained. She also noted that while college enrollment during the pandemic had dipped overall, enrollment at for-profit schools saw an increase of 3%.
“This should really raise alarm and signal to those who are trying to advance racial equity and close gaps in the higher education system,” Martinez said. “We end up seeing a higher risk of students ending up with low completion rates, high debt burdens, and difficulty to repay their loans, which has ultimately longer financial consequences for those communities.”
This is exactly what happened to Brian Whitehead, who was enrolled in the for-profit ITT Technical Institute from 2006 to 2008 after serving five years in the Army. He was motivated to attend because ITT, which closed in 2016, boasted that 90% of its graduates start their careers with salaries averaging $60-$70,000 per year.
“The experience was nothing like I had been promised,” Whitehead said, explaining how he ended up with $50,000 in debt and never managed to land a job in his field. “ITT may be closed, but I have to live with the debt and frustration they left behind.”
Acknowledging the gravity of stories like these, Martinez expressed hope that the Department of Education will use this series of rulemaking sessions to restore the original promise of the Higher Education Act.
“It was a civil rights law built on the idea that education is essential to all Americans… But in an unregulated market, that promise is being broken by one specific sector: for-profits,” she said.
-The first 2022 rulemaking session for the Department of Education began Tuesday, January 18 and will run through Friday, January 21. It is virtually open to the public and can be attended by registering at this link.
-Author Julienne Gage is an Unidos US Senior Web Content Manager and Editor of ProgressReport.co.